Sky Fest


I saw the ad in the paper: “Sky Fest over Fort Stevenson,” Memorial Day weekend. The kite graphics in the ad were enticing. I haven’t flown a kite since I was a little kid, but something about the care-free abandon symbolized by a kite on the wind appealed to my sense of freedom. And as part of my quest to explore North Dakota, I’d been looking for an excuse to visit Fort Stevenson State Park.

It took me all of five seconds to decide I was going.

The decision to spend the night camping didn’t happen until the last minute. I literally walked out of church that morning and said, “Oh, what the heck. Why not?”

In a couple of hours, I was packed and ready. But I stopped to send a quick text. To a cop.

My story with Sam the sheriff’s deputy didn’t end with rescuing a stray dog and helping him get his patrol car out of the snow. He and his wife Jen (a corrections officer) became my first friends in my new hometown.

Sam and Jen have never flat-out informed me that I’m insane for traipsing into the boondocks alone, frequently without a moment’s forethought. But if I walk home from their house after dark (all of three blocks), I’m supposed to text that I made it okay (in a town so small, everybody knows everybody by name). I was also under orders from Jen that I was supposed to tell them if I went camping. And when a prison guard tells you to do something, you just say, “Yes, ma’am.” (BTW, her hamburgers are awesome.)

So I texted Sam just before I left, threw the last of the equipment into the car, and was soon flying down the highway with my dog Molly bouncing in the back seat.

We’re going campi-i-ing! she barked at the first car we passed.

No plans. No cares. Nothing to hold us back. Molly and I are so alike, it’s uncanny.

When we got to Fort Stevenson, on the north shore of Lake Sakakawea, we saw the air filled with kites from a mile away. Inside the park, Molly and I claimed a campsite, then walked to the reconstructed guardhouse to capture some photos.

Kites over Guardhouse, Fort Stevenson State Park


Guardhouse, Fort Stevenson





Molly and kites

Aside from seeing the kites, our plans were carved in jello. First we wandered around the park by car, then by foot. Molly had a dip in the lake and chased the breakers as they came in.

Sailboat on Lake Sakakawea


Lake Sakakawea

Wooded Trail

red rock shore, Lake SakakaweaThis, I thought, is the best part about traveling with just your dog. No one to argue with you about what they want to do and when they want to do it. Just chase whatever looks fun.

Molly swimming in Lake Sakakawea

Molly and I shared that long, red shoreline with only two other people, a mother and daughter sitting just beyond the reach of the waves.

Mother and Daughter

I wondered what they were talking about. Probably nothing important. But I found myself hoping that the little girl would remember that moment for the rest of her life. And that she and her mom would have many moments like them.

I took Molly back to camp and got busy setting up my tent, a task that takes me ten minutes. Choosing the best location, however, can take me half an hour. Shade tree–good! Tree roots–bad. Uneven ground–bad. Fire pit–cozy! Wind direction–smoke? Proximity to picnic table–good! Sunset–beautiful. Sunrise–also beautiful. Lake–also beautiful. Why must my tent have only one window?

I stood back and scratched my neck.

That’s when I realized one of my earrings was missing. My pulse started moving faster. They were my favorite pair, and they had been a gift. From Sam and Jen. My stomach turned at the thought of them ever finding out. I had forgotten to remove the earrings after church.

I snagged a park ranger when she walked by and reported the loss.

“Do you know where you may have lost it?” she asked after taking my name and contact info.

I shook my head. “I’ve been all over the park. I doubt anybody will ever see it again.”

For some reason, I didn’t believe my own words. A voice in my head countered, Mindless as you are, there is no way you could have lost that earring. You will find it again.

I tried to hang on to that hope. Meanwhile, I kept the remaining earring in the coin pocket on my shorts and checked on it every ten minutes.

Strange, for someone as stubbornly independent as me, to attach such a great deal of value to a gift. And yet I did.

Pier at Fort Stevenson

Marina at Fort Stevenson

Sunset over harbor at Fort Stevenson

Molly and I returned from our sunset photo shoot as the darkness gathered and built a fire. Molly dozed beside my camp chair while I watched the stars come out and spied a little on the neighbors.

The family of four in the next campsite over had all gone to bed. The tent was dark. No voices. The evening was still young, but their children were small. Earlier that day, the whole family had gone fishing. I envied the memories those kids were making. Camping was something that came to me only recently. It was not a tradition that was passed down to me. And I always went alone.

In the other direction and further away, I could make out a roaring fire through a stand of trees. Voices drifted from that direction. Talking fast. Laughing. They seemed to be playing some sort of game.

Memory carried me back to another campfire, years ago. I was at a friend’s farm, along with pretty much all the home school families from the area. The kids–we’re talking 20 or 30 young people of all ages–had built a bon fire after dark, and we sat around roasting home-grown apples and playing games and telling stories. Our laughter filled the night sky, and none of us wanted to go home.

Bringing my thoughts back to my own fire, I stroked Molly’s ear and was glad for her company. But I wondered if something was missing.

Besides my earring.

Sam tells me I shouldn’t be such a loner. I’m not fast to make friends. I prefer not to trust people.

Memorial Day dawned cold, but the kite enthusiasts were out early. Molly and I took a hike right after breakfast–just to keep warm.

Trail overlooking Lake Sakakawea

By the time we got back to camp, the day had warmed enough for me to fidget with straps and ties without my fingers freezing.

I glanced over at the family-of-four’s camp and found the mother tearing down alone.

“They left you to break camp by yourself?” I called over.

She stopped in the middle of rolling up the tent and laughed. She explained that her husband had caught a fish that morning and the kids had gone to watch him clean it.

“But actually,” she said and laughed again, “it’s easier to break camp without the kids ‘helping.'”

She said she’d enjoyed watching me and my dog. (A campground is the only place where people shamelessly spy on each other.) “Do you camp alone all the time?”

I said yes.

She motioned to another campsite. “I’ve been watching that guy too. He’s camping alone. I saw him last night just sitting by his fire, and I thought, ‘When’s the last time I felt that relaxed?'”

I smiled at the irony. She had been envying the fact that I was alone?

The sky was full of kites again when Molly and I left–each one on the end of its own string, alone and unencumbered to fly high and fearless and free.

Yet on the ground, someone always held the other end of the string. Holding the kite back. And in doing so, lifting it higher.

I got home and picked up my small silver jewelry box. Took a deep breath. Opened the lid.

My earring was inside.

My Hatchet Is My New Best Friend

CampfireFirst time I said that, I was like, Whoa! What am I? An ax murderer?

Last year, instead of doing the easy (and logical) thing and buying any one of the dozens of camp stoves available at Walmart, I went all nostalgic and decided to master the art of cooking over an open fire.

Yeah. That went well. It once took me a ream of paper, a million fire starters, and two bundles of wood before I got a flame that would hold its own. And then it decided to become some sort of blazing inferno–way more of a fire than I needed to warm up dinner.

I was ready to give up on nostalgia and buy one of those fancy little propane grills when I ran across the book that saved my life: The Complete Book of Fire by Buck Tilton. For cooking, I learned, you want to use small sticks and build up a small but hot bed of coals.

Small sticks? Then why do all the parks and gas stations sell you nothing but big, honkin’ logs? Had the word “kindling” never crossed their minds?

Hence I bought a hatchet.

I didn’t get a chance to do anything with it last year, other than get it sharpened and take a few practice swings in the back yard. The first time I brought it on a real camping trip was over Memorial Day weekend when Molly and I went to Fort Stevenson State Park.

I picked up a bundle of firewood from the campground host and brought it back to my campsite. Dropped it down next to the fire ring. Unsheathed The Hatchet. (Okay, it doesn’t have a sheath. I need to get it one. I’m always afraid Molly or Juliean will have a run-in with the business end.)

Lacking a chopping block, I set the first log on end on the ground and knelt in front of it. I felt more than a little self-conscious. I’d never seen (or heard) any other campers using a hatchet. Their campfires appeared to spring out of nowhere, as if they’d dropped a match on a log, then pulled up a camp chair and started roasting marshmallows.

What the heck. So long as I looked like I knew what I was doing, it didn’t matter. Why, gee, I chop my own kindling all the time!

Only I hadn’t swung that hatchet since last year. And that time, I had a chopping block to snag the ax head in case I missed the log I was aiming for.

Kneeling in the grass in front of my inaugural piece of firewood, I was keenly aware of how small my target was and how much more vulnerable my thighs felt by comparison. Not to mention how hard it would be to jump out of the way of my own stroke from a kneeling position.

I envisioned a park ranger leaning over me and telling me everything was gonna be okay, the ambulance was on its way–and secretly wondering what the dickens this girl thought she was doing with a hatchet.

Molly, at least, was staked out at a safe distance. She’d be out of the way when the EMTs arrived.

I took a few practice swings, like a golfer lining up his shot, then put some muscle and momentum into my stroke and went for the real thing.

The hatchet thudded into the end of the log and got stuck, embedded a puny half-inch.

I was suddenly glad I’d brought something I could eat cold for dinner.

My next stroke missed the log entirely.

Try hitting the log, Molly suggested.

Thanks, girl-o.

After several more failed attempts, I drew one comforting conclusion: I wasn’t going to amputate my leg. While I missed the log (which was taunting me) as often as I hit it (knocking it over), my arm reflexively swung the hatchet wide to the right long before it could ever connect with my leg.

With that emboldening knowledge, I set the toppled log on end again. Lined up my stroke. Imagined that the hatchet and the log were one and would meet each other as if by their own will. Banished any fear of doing damage to myself. Instead envisioned the hatchet traveling down the full length of the log like a thunderbolt and embedding itself deep in the dirt.

I swung.

I also briefly considered delivering a war cry.


The log split neatly in two.

See? Molly said. Just hit the log.

Of course, after that I felt pretty much invincible. Well, three particularly hard-wooded logs proved I wasn’t. But once I started hitting smaller and smaller targets–and bracing the littlest pieces between other logs and hitting even smaller targets–I figured I was doing all right.

That night as the sun went down, I kindled my fire–yes, with kindling–and it progressed easily from paper to my smallest chips to the larger splinters to all the little sticks I’d made, and finally those darn hard woods that had resisted my hatchet but now fell prey to my fire. (Mwa-ha-ha-ha.)

I pulled up my camp chair, petting Molly as she fell asleep beside me. As I enjoyed my little blaze, I certainly didn’t care any more whether using a hatchet was somehow “cheating.” We listened to the fire snapping and saw the eerie glow it made on the underside of the tree hanging over our campsite and watched the stars come out. The Big Dipper and Polaris and millions more than you would ever see in town.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of one of my neighbors hacking firewood with a power saw. Ha! Okay. I definitely wasn’t cheating.

Camp at Ft. Stevenson


Pawnotes from Molly

My girl is dangerous. First she attacks dead trees with a funny hammer, then she builds a fire and expects me to sit next to it. The flames got a little too big on her once and sparks started drifting all over the place. I thought she was gonna light the tent on fire and decided to hide behind her camp chair.

When she got her campfire back on good behavior, she convinced me to come out of hiding, and I fell asleep beside her.

I guess I’m not picky where I sleep, so long as my girl is nearby.


Down the Winding Road

Well, we did it again. Got in the car and ended up God knows where. Certainly not where we planned on going. But you know. We saw a sign on the side of the highway. We hit the brakes and the blinker and took a turn we hadn’t expected. Ended up shooting this video on the banks of beautiful Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota.

P.S. Happy Birthday, Molly! (April 15th)